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Waking beneath his warm blanket, he scratched his belly and yawned, contorting to stretch ever so slightly. His hand twinged as if it were lying in wait for him to regain consciousness, eliciting a gasp as the rest of his body flooded him with pain. Everything itched tortuously, as if needles were embedded across his sore and abused body, his eyes burning in their sockets as his throat closed up, threatening to choke him from within. The warm blanket became an uncomfortable death trap and he struggled listlessly to free himself from its confines so he could scratch and rub away all his itches.
Flailing ineffectively for a time, he soon gave up and lay still, exhausted by his minor efforts. Thirsty and weak, he blinked and surveyed his surroundings, unable to see through the darkness. Struggling to sit up, he continued absently scratching his dry, rough skin, feeling it peel and leak, the flowing fluids easing his discomfort as the pressure released. His body too weak to stand, he tried to call out for help, but as he gasped for air, he realized once again that he couldn’t hear anything, the silence deafening once brought to his attention.
Right, massive injuries. At least he was still alive.
A small, slim hand pressed against his chest, accompanied by the steady thrumming that must have been someone speaking, but he couldn’t make out any words, only vibrations from close contact echoing through his bones. Confused and disoriented, he moved to fight, but weak as a day-old kitten, he barely flopped his arm about, dragging it across the bed. The hands firmly pressed him back, the thrumming sounds growing insistent. Unable to resist, he lay back down, breathless and drained by his brief bout. A gentle touch stroked his face and he settled into the blankets, drifting back to sleep. They were friendly, else they’d kill him and be done with it. Nothing to worry about.
The familiar void surrounded him, and he sighted the spectres speeding towards him once more. With a smile, he charged them with a scream of challenge, devouring them whole and basking in the warmth as delicious power welled up within him. It seemed only seconds before he woke once more, his skin irritated and itching even worse than before. Still half-asleep, he threw aside the blanket, furiously scratching as he ignored the pain. Someone gripped his wrist and held him in place while a knee pressed him down. Thrashing about, he fought to wiggle against anything that could soothe his distress. Muted protests and threats erupted from his throat as he struggled, promising retribution upon any who wronged him.
A cooling sensation erupted from his chest and like a switch was pressed in his mind, he flopped still. Overwhelmed by the relief, his benefactor spread a lotion on his inflamed skin, his tortured body cooling beneath the gentle touch. Crying, he tried to offer thanks, but his tongue and lips felt clumsy and unresponsive. Unable to hear his voice, he kept trying, hoping his message went through, until his benefactor’s soft hands pressed against his lips, and he fell asleep once more as she stroked his face, soothing him to rest.
Please be a woman, it would humiliating to have a man caring for him like that.
He was uncertain how many times he woke, but he held onto the brief memories of consciousness. Waking in the darkness as his benefactor spoon-fed him broth, or wiped his body with a warm, wet cloth, she worked hard to keep him alive. Each time he woke he tried to ask questions, but unable to hear the answers, he could only lay back down, exhausted by the barest efforts. His mind seemed to stutter as he slept, time passing by in brief moments of oblivion, as if moving forward with a blink of his eyes. The only things that remained the same were the silence, the darkness, and the spectres.
He tried to visit his brother but each time he tried to relax, he fell asleep instead, his mind and body exhausted by the ordeal, the spectres unwilling to leave him be. Sleep. Devour. Wake. Eat. Repeat. The cycle continued endlessly, nothing else remaining in memory, no sight, smell, sound or taste, only the sensation of the itchy blanket and uneven bedding against his skin to accompany him.
Until one day he opened his eyes to radiant brilliance. Blinking away the tears, he shielded his eyes from the harsh glare and took in the surroundings for the first time. Light streamed in from a poorly fitted door, crafted from misshapen branches lashed together. The bare clay walls were drab and lumpy, devoid of windows or decorations. Muddied, woven-grass mats lined the floor, with a tiny table for one crammed in the corner next to the crude fireplace where meals were prepared. The cramped interior screamed of poverty, with no other furniture aside from a chest for clothes, his bed little more than a mat of straw upon which to lay, with a second patch of straw nearby. The single room was kitchen, dining and bedroom all in one, with nothing more to see, the barest of accommodations.
Everything was too bright, glowing in what should be a dimly lit interior, and he pulled the blanket over his head, blocking out the dazzling illumination which pained him so. His body stiffened as pain radiated from his muscles, groaning in discomfort as he tried to burrow into his bed of straw. Absently noting his arms were free and mobile, he glanced over his body and his mind recoiled, unable to process what he was seeing.
His left arm resembled a thing of nightmare, with two cavernous bands of pus-filled notches, as if his arm were formed of putrid, yellow pulp and someone dug a furrow through it with a spoon. Gagging slightly at the sight, panic welled as he checked the rest of his body. Similar wounds were found on his legs and sides, bite-shaped marks indented on his flesh where chunks of him were missing. Several of them were still wet with blood, others dried and scabbed, the dark brown-red crust no less alarming than the yellow-green craters. His right hand was whole, but the regrown fingers were a grotesque sight, swollen, fluid-filled sacs atop the stumps, the nails nonexistent.
Growing faint, he leaned back and shut his eyes, trying to wipe away the memory. Drifting in and out of consciousness a few more times, he remembered little of his waking moments, his mind unwilling to accept his situation. He was a warrior, powerful and vital, not this weak, battered half-corpse, like a chewed piece of meat. The spectres continued to bother him, and he devoured them again and again, ignoring all else as he hid in recesses of his mind.
Waking once more, he heard the sound of arguing and curiosity took hold. Propping himself up on an elbow, he listened intently. A raspy male pleaded, “Come now Qing-Qing, stop being stubborn. I’ve asked thrice now and I ain’t gonna ask again; be my wife. You’ll be treated well, I promise you. I’ll be the next village chief, comfort and status will be yours for the taking.”
An angry woman replied, her voice petulant and pleasant to hear. “I’ve told you before Gen and I’ll tell you again: I’ve no interest in marrying you, never in a thousand years. If you try and force me, then I’ll kill you and then myself, just you watch.”
“Damn you woman, have I not been good to you? When have I mistreated you? Women throw themselves at me and I’ve never given them a second glance! My family took care of you after your parents died, and you repay me by living with another man? How dare you humiliate me like this, and with a bandit no less.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Gen, he’s an injured kid. That aside, I’m grateful for your family’s aid, but not enough to sell my life for it. If need be, I will find a way to repay them, but I won’t spread my legs for you, not now, and never. Please leave, and never bother me with this again.”
“Bah! You dumb woman, You have no skills to survive with. What can you do? Wash clothes, run errands, and mend clothes fer a few coppers a month? No one else will want you, not with your acid tongue and shrewish behaviour, and especially not once my father speaks to them. In a few weeks, you’ll be starving and ready to spread your legs for any man who’ll spare a bag of rice, mark my words.”
“The Mother will provide, I’ve no fear for my future while She guides my way. You think the village is all there is? The Empire is boundless, with men a plenty. I could walk to the next village and find one better than you with a snap of my fingers.”
“If you set foot outside, you’ll be dead or worse within the week, you idiot dreamer. That’s the harsh reality of the world, Qing-Qing, you’re only safe here, with me. That bandit you’re looking after in there? He ain’t gonna sweep you off your feet and bring you away, like one of them empty romance novels you’re always reading. If he wakes up, and you best pray he don’t, he’s likely to have his way with you, laughing while you scream for mercy. A pox on you for wasting my goodwill. Assuming he doesn’t slit yer throat when he’s done, don’t come crying to me. I ain’t interested in spoiled goods.”
A brunette woman entered the hut and slammed the door, the flimsy panel bouncing in place until she held it firmly close. Dressed in a plain, ragged tunic, she huffed in anger as she leaned against the door, her body shaking in anger and fear. Gathering herself, she wiped away her tears and turned to see him staring at her, yelping in surprise and scrambling away in shock.
Feeling awkward, he stammered out in a faint voice, “Err… I’m not going to rape you. Promise.” The brief sentence dried out his mouth and he coughed fitfully as he laid back down to rest. Damn, he’d always laughed at brother’s awkwardness around women, but it seemed they both suffered from that particular defect. What a great opening line, ‘not going to rape you’, exactly what every woman wants to hear.
At least brother isn’t awake to see him flounder like this. Kind as he was, brother loved to tease, unwilling to give any face.
The woman threw aside his covers and clasped his hand, holding it close to her as he squinted and averted his gaze. His hand wasn’t as disgusting anymore, almost normal in texture, though still grotesque. “Oh, it’s a miracle! Everyone said it would be a mercy to cut your throat, but only after two short weeks, you’re awake and speaking. How wonderful, the Mother has brought you back to life, she must have a plan for you. What happened? What do you remember? Where did you travel from?” Her eager eyes stared at him anxiously, not noticing as she pressed his misshapen fingers against her bosom. “Did you meet her? Tell me everything.”
His face reddened as he stammered, “Uh… Nothing. I remember nothing. Last I remember, I was going to bed, and then I woke up in a cave or something. Were you the one who found me?” The memory of a hand stroking his cheek inflamed his passions, and he pulled his hand away from her, immediately cursing himself for acting the fool. Why not enjoy the sensation as it lasted? She was a pretty, although Lin and Mila were prettier. In her early twenties with shoulder-length locks and tanned skin, she was an earthly beauty even while dressed in rags and covered in dirt. Her thin frame could use more meat, and she seemed frail and weak, but it was endearing, invoking a feeling of protectiveness in him. Realizing he was staring, he pulled the covers over his head in embarrassment. “My eyes are hurting from the light.”
Sad. Even brother wasn’t so worthless as to hide from women. He might as well change his name to Falling Turtle, always shrinking back into his shell. He noted his injuries looked much better, no longer gaping wounds, although he was far from healthy. His arm was still the worst, the uneven contours around the healing gashes reminding him of minced meat, used to stuff the dumplings he so enjoyed eating. Still, it was an improvement, and it sounded like he’d been here for around twenty days. Was he healing quickly because of brother? He hoped brother would wake soon, he wasn’t equipped to deal with this. Give him an enemy to fight, and there was nothing to fear, but laying in bed, injured and weak, it all terrified him. What if he never recovered?
He heard her rummaging through the chest as she spoke excitedly. “Ah yes, of course. I’ve read about this, when eyes regenerate it takes time for them to adjust. You were blind and deaf when I found you, more dead than alive, and look at you now. It’s incredible how quickly you’ve recovered.” Lifting the covers to expose his naked frame, she pressed a few strips of black cloth into his hands, her eyes affixed to his face. “Here, wrap those around your head to filter out the light, and we’ll remove them one by one over time. You weren’t in a cave, I found you on the western shore of Treasures Lake. Went out to gather clams and there you were, crawling and screaming. You don’t remember anything else? Where you were travelling to, or the route your boat was taking?”
“Uh… I don’t think I was on a boat, my brother … well we don’t like boats very much.”
“You must have been travelling by boat, I found you covered in seaweed, mud, and fish bites. It was probably the water pressure that burst your eyes and eardrums.” She peered down at him, her head under the covers and uncomfortably close to his, and he inhaled her scent, like fresh water and clean earth. A small beauty mark sat beneath her right eye, the tiny imperfection making her look more beautiful and real as she studied his face, eyes wide with worry. “You really can’t remember anything?” No, he was wrong, she was every bit as beautiful as Mila and Lin, perhaps even more so.
Turning away, he covered his disgusting, scarred body and screwed shut his eyes. “I remember nothing before waking on the beach. Thank you for your care, but I’m tired and I’d like to rest.” Inwardly screaming at his pathetic behaviour, he couldn’t find the courage to turn around again.
The blanket settled back down atop him, and she patted his shoulder. “Ah sweet boy, don’t you worry about me seeing everything, who do you think kept you clean these past weeks? Put my hands all over you to keep you from scratching your skin right off, you were a real terror to look after. Anyhow, you rest up and heal, you’re looking much better than when I found you. The Mother proclaimed that you should live, so you will live, else my name isn’t Ai Qing. Ah, what’s your name by the way?”
Too embarrassed to reply, he pretended to sleep as she gently stroked his face, although with the state of his body, the performance soon became a reality, drifting away into the darkness once more.
Deciding it was the infirmity making him this way, he resolved to be more manly and brave the next time he woke. He owed her so much for her care, it would be simple as turning his palm to sweep her off her feet like in those stories she supposedly read. His mind filled with thoughts of her as he mindlessly devoured the spectres that came to haunt him. Ai Qing, a beautiful name, meaning romantic or loving, or even loving kiss. Ah, Qing-Qing, how great it would be to kiss your lovely pink lips and make you my wife…
Brother would agree, I’m sure of it.
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